Thursday, March 06, 2008

Truth vs. Fiction

So, it's March in Texas. And we're about to have our second snowfall of the week. I hadn't watched the TV news in more than a day, so I guess I missed the part where they forecast this. Last night, I was in the kitchen getting dinner together when the news came on and thought I was hearing wrong when they started talking about snow today. It was the science geek weather guy (my number two crush at that station -- he usually does weekends with my anchorman), and he explained how earlier in the week it looked like that storm would take a different path, but now it's heading right toward us.

I don't mind so much because this is my favorite writing weather and I'm this close to being done with this draft of the book. This is where I have to overcome my impatience issues and be really tough on myself. It's so easy to let something slide, just to be done with it, instead of being tough and analytical. I already know of some scenes I really need to cut, so I'm going to have to re-tackle the parts I worked on last night. I'll consider this future "deleted scenes" material for the web site.

I normally avoid talking about publishing scandals around here because, frankly, I suspect that few people outside the publishing world care all that much. But the latest one actually fits pretty well with my topic from the other day about why I'm not funny enough to write non-fiction humor because I'm too reserved to do truly funny stuff in real life. There's been yet another fake memoir revealed, and this one wasn't just a case of someone exaggerating the events for greater impact or even making up some events in a mostly sort-of true story for greater impact. It was essentially a novel sold as a memoir -- a story about growing up in foster homes in a rough part of town that turned out to have been written by an upper-class suburban girl from an intact family who went to private schools. Oops.

You do have to wonder how the industry gets fooled again and again, and why pure fiction gets sold as non-fiction. I think the publishing industry and its audience have developed the same "reality" mindset as the television industry, but for different reasons. On TV, it's a budget issue. They don't have to pay real (as in union -- there are writers on reality shows) writers or real actors for reality TV. All they have to do is collect a bunch of people who desperately want to be famous, put them in a situation and let the cameras roll. There aren't any special effects, no real sets to be built, no fancy makeup or costumes. Even if fewer people watch these shows than watch scripted TV, they come out ahead. Sadly, it seems like more people watch a lot of this stuff.

In the book world, though, production budget isn't as much of an issue. All books have an unlimited special effects budget, and it costs no more or less to produce a non-fiction book than a fiction book. The difference here is that the audience is definitely bigger for non-fiction. It goes back to my old rant about how even the bookworm characters don't seem to read fiction for fun. People who would ignore the exact same book if it were called a novel will grab it up and feel like they're reading something important and worthy if it's called a memoir and shelved in the non-fiction section. Media outlets that wouldn't so much as mention the book as a novel will do huge features on the author and reviews of the book if it's a memoir. You won't get on the big morning TV chat shows as the author of a novel unless you're already a bestseller, but as the author of a memoir, you stand a chance.

From the media's perspective, I see the point. An author talking about writing a novel isn't necessarily as potentially gripping as a person talking about a life interesting enough to warrant a book. And media coverage helps drive sales. But there's still a big truth vs. fiction thing going on in people's minds that I don't quite grasp (mostly because reality is not my friend. Give me fiction any day!). Reality TV is really popular, but even people who watch it tend to admit that it's of lesser quality than most scripted shows (with the exception of things like documentaries and science type shows). It's a guilty pleasure. When it comes to books, though, somehow the attitude is that the closer the book is to being true, the more worthy it is. Even in fiction, the books that are considered more "real" -- that is, without happy endings and with lots of moral ambiguity -- are considered more worthy. Fiction is seen as frivolous, a guilty pleasure. I don't know how many people I've run into who state proudly, "I don't read fiction." They only read non-fiction because they feel like they're learning something or getting insight into the way the world works. Then the next step down in popularity (though not always prestige) and publishing deals seems to be the roman a clef, the book sold as a novel that's based on the author's real life. This is especially big if the author has worked in a glamorous industry and there are hints that the fictional characters are based on real famous people. These authors can also get media coverage because they can talk about the real-life people and events who inspired the novel. That subgenre seems a little closer to reality TV, but there are still people who think that reading something based on a true story is better than reading a flat-out work of fiction.

It would be interesting to do an experiment in which people were given the same book, but some copies were labeled fiction, some were labeled fiction but were said to be based on a true story, and some were labeled memoir, and see how their perceptions of the book differed. That might make for some very interesting focus groups.

But anyway, that perception and media treatment have helped lead to an environment where these kinds of literary frauds can occur. The authors can see that they stand a better chance of having a bestseller if they sell their work as a memoir rather than as a novel. Publishers know they're more likely to have a big book on their hands if it's non-fiction. If the author is lucky enough to even get someone to look at the book as a novel, it'll end up getting a 5,000-copy print run in trade paperback and get tossed into the general fiction section where each store will have two copies, shelved spine-out. The publisher's publicity effort will amount to a mass mailing of review copies to media outlets that will ignore it.

And people wonder why people try to market their novels as memoir? Duh! Though you'd think publishers would learn to do a little fact checking before they offer the huge contract, especially after so many scandals.

Meanwhile, I'm happily reading and writing books that I want to be as far from reality as possible.


Carradee said...

I like fiction for another reason: you have to use your brain more to figure out what it's saying. Fiction DOES teach, but (hopefully) with subtlety. That can make it more dangerous than non-fiction in many ways, since passive readers are getting the lessons dumped into their skulls without even realizing they're being taught.

I also like how you can make an argument from a hypothetical (e.g., fictional) situation and get a reader to agree with you or at least see your point, when that reader wouldn't give you the time of day if you tried to argue the same thing from a real life example.


SFG said...

Not too many dragons and wizards in the real world, eh? ;)